People have long said that part of the charm of having a dog is that he loves you unconditionally. After having dogs and cats and the occasional bird all my life, I agree with this, although cats and birds and other critters we keep in our homes also love us. They just are perhaps less physically demonstrative compared to dogs.
Sure, some people claim that pets could live just fine out in the wild hunting and foraging. My strong opinion is that living wild is NOT ideal for any pet species. Many of them are in fact prey species and are doomed to be eaten by foxes or coyotes if turned out of the house. Loose/abandoned pets are also prone to terrible parasite infestations and contagious diseases.
So, no, living wild is not the ideal for the creatures we call companion animals. But what I wanted to talk about was love. More people than ever are admitting freely that they have a deep love for their pets. Offices are slowly starting to recognize that when someone loses a pet, a paid day or two off to mourn is a compassionate workplace policy. Psychologists are starting to document that many people go through the same stages of grief when a beloved pet dies as they do when a human family member dies.
In my opinion, this is all entirely appropriate. If our pets give their lives to us in a wholly trusting manner as they do, depending on us for their health and safety, we must learn to give of ourselves in return. We should learn to love them unconditionally as well. What does this mean? I think it means a little soul searching and complete honesty with yourself.
It's the rare person who can look at a puppy or kitten and not fall half-way in love. But it's well known among animal shelters and rescue organizations that some people dump elderly animals precisely because the pet is elderly or has chronic illness. If you're one of those people who are inclined to do that - and you don't have to admit it to anyone but yourself - all I ask is to NOT buy/adopt that puppy or kitten. Because they are sentient, emotional creatures too. Remember we started out talking about how they have unconditional love for us? How can you betray someone who loves you with their entire heart and soul by dumping them in a strange facility with strangers, never to see you again?
[Dave cuddles Ajax in his ex-pen as he recovers after surgery.]
Here is what unconditional love means. It means that I love my pets more as time goes by. When they're sick, as my Ajax was last summer, it makes you heartsick and you do what you can to help them get better or to alleviate their pain. When they get old, as my Capri is now (just turned 13 on April 2nd), becoming frail and graying all over, slightly hard of hearing and weak in the back end, you provide assistance as needed and tell them you love them and touch them with tenderness knowing that time is growing short. When the time comes to help them cross the Rainbow Bridge, you set aside your own pain and do what is right for them, do what is needed to gently hand them over into the arms of God and kiss them goodbye. Believe me, I know that it's agony. Losing Ajax ripped my heart out and I still miss him terribly. But I still love him and know that I did the right thing for him and would do it again. The depth of my pain in losing him is simply a reflection of how unconditionally and passionately I loved him.
Here's one more challenge: don't run away from it. There are so many pets that need love. Do what I did and adopt another. While still loving and mourning Ajax (because I will mourn him for years), and still loving my elderly "baby girl" Capri, and also Sweetie Pie our darling kitty, I'm now in the process of wrapping my heart around Loki. Now that we've adopted him, he's destined for a lifetime of unconditional love and tender care.
There is a religious story that when you die and go to heaven, you stand by the Pearly Gates and St. Peter reads off your list of sins in order to judge if you're deserving to spend eternity in heaven. My belief is that rather than being judged by your sins, you are judged by your goodness and love. St. Peter will look in his book and count all of the people (and I count beloved animals in that category) you loved and how well you loved them. So if you want to go to heaven, you should give your heart away repeatedly. And unconditionally.